Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy

I have been thwarted nearly every time I have tried to see dead bodies this summer. I saw one, towards the beginning, at the Changsha Provincial Museum in China, a mummy of some ancient queen. She was lying there as hundreds of tourists were pushing each other – seriously pushing, elbowing too – to get a glimpse of her. Normally Chinese people give me more personal space than they give each other. I call it the sphere of fear (my personal space). But everyone was looking at the mummy, so they didn’t notice I wasn’t Chinese, and I was bumped around like the rest. Eventually I wormed my way in and looked into the gaping maw of this poor ancient dead woman. It’s morbid, by definition, but absolutely fascinating. I was not looking at a vase or a plate or a piece of jewelry but a person who had used all these things, had thought, lived and breathed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We each define art and history in our own way. Call me twisted – I’ll call you crazy for thinking Mark Rothko is worth a second glance (looking at you, Hilary).

When we got to Beijing, then, it was only obvious that we should go and see Mao, who lies mummified in a tomb in Tiananmen Square. Well, it was only obvious to me. Gretchen and Jeanne had no interest in the pilgrimage and made me feel kind of creepy about wanting to. You’d think I’d have grown out of feeling subject to peer pressure. Nope.

Then we got to Moscow. Lenin’s body lies in Red Square, in a completely anachronistic Soviet block (har har) among the fanciful old imperial buildings. You used to have to wait for hours to be able to see him, but the queues have died down in recent years and it only takes about 45 minutes. Again, the rest of my party wasn’t interested, but I talked about it with an American ex-soldier who I met in my hostel. Somehow our wires crossed and he went without me; I figured I’d go the next day but apparently Mr Lenin does not accept visitors on Mondays.

Here in Kiev there’s an impressive collection of mummies of monks underneath the Kievo-Pecherskya Lavra Monastery. It sounds like dead body Mecca: an underground crypt, still lit by candles, with the remains of these venerated holy men an arm’s reach from the corridor (not that I’d want to touch them, I’m not thatcreepy). I visited the monastery with Olivier, part of the cultural attache of the French embassy, who was giving a tour to a visiting French artist named Guillaume Reynard and his friend Florence.
I’d forgotten how bitchy French women can be. I’m not talking about my host, Laure, who is a total angel: how else could you describe someone who agreed to host me in her apartment for free after one email exchange over couchsurfing.org? Florence is cast of a different mold. We spoke in French, which I learned in high school and improved when I lived in France from 2004-2005. Not far into our visit, she turned to Olivier and said ‘She speaks French like a retarded Parisian’ – then turned and gave me a saccharine smile. ‘Her French, it’s not bad,’ chided Olivier, ‘and she can understand everything so far as I can tell.’ Florence didn’t offer an apology.


Just before the gates to the monastery, Florence declared that she was crevée (exhausted) and so we paused for a café before going in. We toured the grounds of the upper monastery, which was stunning in the decaying afternoon light. Much of the cathedral had been reduced to rubble by either the Nazis or the Soviets, noone’s really sure. It’s been rebuilt in fine form, with only one pocked golden dome (furthest left, above) showing the legacy of the tough twentieth century. It was all well and good, I thought, but where were the mummies?

‘Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have time because we stopped for café,’ said Olivier. ‘It closes in fifteen minutes.’

Some sort of divine providence witnessed my pain at missing yet another opportunity to see dead bodies, and so gave me a second chance. My trip to Kazakhstan did not pan out as planned (more on that soon) so I have another three days to revisit the Lavra and improve my unimpressive body count.

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The Middle Ages are alive and well

You meet the most interesting people traveling. This, for example, is Benedict.

His name is actually Tobias, but as that’s a very common name in his home country of Germany he prefers to go by Benedict. Benedict was born too late (1986) to be old enough to climb the Berlin wall before it fell, so he feels he has a ‘deficiency’ and must climb any and all available walls, preferably forbidden ones.

Benedict is a journey carpenter, part of a medieval guild of construction workers who upon completing their apprenticeship must travel for three years and one day. They are not allowed within 50 kilometers of their home and cannot pay for lodging: they’re supposed to camp if no one offers them a bed. They are meant to work for their lodging (and food, if offered), honing their skills under whatever master carpenters they find along the way. They wear a distinctive outfit, unchanged since who knows when, of bell-bottom black pants, black peaked hat, corduroy vest, and white shirtsleeves. Benedict’s pants unfortunately rotted in the Chinese heat and his shirt was on the way so he switched to a T-shirt. His traveling gear is not to exceed three bundles that can be strapped to a frame of sticks on his back, a journal for master carpenters to write reviews of his work, and a walking stick.

Most journey carpenters stay in Germany, where their outfits are recognized and hospitality is easy to come by. Because of the aforementioned obsession with walls, however, Benedict decided he had better come to the Great one. He spent five months hitchhiking, training, and working across Eurasia, and arrived in Beijing just in time to catch a minibus to the rather remote Jinshanling section of the wall. The merry minibusers included Gretchen, Jeanne, and myself; a Filipino diplomat currently stationed in Moscow on his way to North Korea; a Brazilian backpacker; a student from Minnesota; and a man and a woman from Barcelona who had never met but were fulfilling the same dream of hiking the wall.

We had plenty of time to bond over the 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, and I learned many fascinating things:
Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, is the capital city with the widest range of annual temperature change, from about -40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 100 in the summer.
The Japanese army infested Taiwan with poisonous snakes when it retreated in 1945. Talk about bitter.
The Russian government doesn’t read any of the policy briefings produced by the Filipino diplomatic service. Forgive me if I’m not surprised.
The nightlife in Sitges, the Provincetown of Catalonia, is supposedly the best in the world, even if you’re not gay.

UPDATE: Journey carpenters are known in Germany as Gesellen, or wayfarers. Apparently they’re undergoing a resurgence thanks to the recession.

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Oh, Modernity (take 2)!


It seems four weeks in southern China have gotten into my blood. Here in Beijing, I’m so excited every time I see a foreigner that I grab Gretchen’s arm and whisper ‘waigoren!‘ (foreigner!), just as the Chinese in waigoren-poor Dongguan used to do. We visit the hip 798 Art District and I hardly know what to order from the western-style restaurants. No lotus? No chicken’s feet? What is this thing called ‘fettucine’?

798 is one of the cleverer trousit traps designed by the Beijing Olympic Committee. It masquerades as an organic art community a la Brooklyn or East London: bleak warehouses repurposed as art galleries, a place for rich kids to produce Warholian Mao portrains and call themselves cutting edge. Unlike so many places in Beijing, there is money here, and lots of waigoren.

We stumbled upon a gallery opening down an alleyway. The first person I noticed was a barefoot Asian girl straddling a tree. A machine was blowing inky bubbles at her as an insect-skinny white man took her picture through a large window.

 I asked one of the artists if he could explain what he was trying to get at and he replied ‘I’m Canadian.’

 I ate some free hors d’oeuvres and made up my own theories – the artist had already taken care of all the free booze.

We end up splitting a cab to Sanlitun, Beijing’s club district, with Matt Hope, a British sculptor with a refreshing lack of pretension. I’m intrigued by anyone who can make a living as an artist, and I peppered him with questions: Why Beijing? (because he has his sculptures built in Chinese factories) Why Chinese factories? (because they’re cheap and willing to do limited-run, even one-off productions) What are the factoires like? (the fieriest stage of the Industrial Revolution: he describes a town outside of Dongguan known as Metal city, not to be confused with Leather city and Plastic city, where laborers turn metal in shells of buildings and the furnaces blast onto the street). I couldn’t help thinking it sounded like hell.

‘No,’ said Matt, ‘it’s just modernisation.’

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Tall girls in a short country

Foreigners are still a rare, rare sighting in Hunan province. We are treated like safari animals: people point, take pictures, keep their distance or occasionally try to feed us. Bug-eyed stares are a given. The teachers have each come up with coping mechanisms: Mike take pictures of people taking pictures of us, Amanda waves and smiles for the camera, I make faces for them. We’ve developed a points system to keep things interesting:

  • 1 point for catching someone blatantly staring at us
  • 2 points for deliberate head turning or stopping to watch us pass
  • 3 points for pointing
  • 4 points for audible recognition, such as shouting ‘waigoren’ (foreigner) or loudly saying hello
  • 5 points for taking a photo (bonus if the person pretends to focus on something else, then snaps as soon as you enter the frame)
  • 6 points for being a guest star in a home video

And so on. We eventually eliminate the first three tiers as being too frequent to bear counting. Amanda, who is not only a waigoren but is black, is the runaway winner. She is the elusive lionness of our safari.

Being a giraffe of a waigoren – southern Chinese do not often see a woman approaching six feet – is helpful in some cases. People tend to give you more personal space. People snatch up their children before you step on them. (I’ve always had a problem with baby-trampling in the US, they’re just so far out of my normal sight line).

There is one place, however, where people don’t have time to notice if you are a waigoren. It is, apart from the Hong Kong border crossing, the most terrifying place in China for me: the train station.

My first experience at Beijing’s colossal domestic hub Peking West nearly scared me out of the country permanently. Fifty yards from the entrance, I was sucked into a slow-moving flood of people pressing towards the narrow gates of the entrance. As we neared the door, gentle shoves degenerated into kicking and clawing as people struggled to get their luggage onto the metal detector first. When I made it through – all in one piece, to my amazement – the mob abruptly dissipated, leaving me wondering if I had exaggerated its savagery. My friend Jenny, who emerged a minute later, was not so forgiving.

‘I don’t understand how eight millennia of a culture based on respect and self-sacrifice has produced this,’ she spat. ‘I’ve been holding onto my Chinese passport [she moved to the states in 1997] out of some sort of misplaced nostalgia. Forget that. I’m applying for US citizenship as soon as I get back to the states.’

Thankfully the Changsha station was not as ‘renounce-my-citizenship’ violent as Peking West. It probably helped that I was traveling with two other waigoren. Gretchen, descended from the blonde midwestern Amazon gene pool, was good for clearing paths through the horde, and Jeanne, nearly a foot shorter than both of us, burrowed skillfully. We made it onto the train with minimal emotional scarring.

The twenty-one hour train ride passed quickly thanks to a quartet of classical-guitar playing adolescents. Like a Sinic version of the Carter family, they turned the carriage into their tour bus, jamming and practicing well into the evening, pausing long enough to teach me the A and E chords. I’m saving C, D, and G for my upcoming train journeys: one and a half days from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia; twenty four hours to Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’; and three and a half days to Moscow.
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Over the Hills and Far Away

It is said that he who tires of London tires of life. She who tires of Madrid has reason. If the intermittent wind blowing stale, 110 degree heat across your face doesn’t get to you, the smoking and the locals’ propensity for public urination might.
Don’t get me wrong: for all its squalor, Madrid is an unforgettable city. Each of three big museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza – has a collection that would be worth a detour on any European trip. For those who would rather eat pig’s ears than be stuck looking at paintings, you could get them, served with salt, in any bar, along with an endless list of foods more or less deserving of the term ‘delicacy’. And while at that bar, you might make the acquaintance of a talkative of Madrilena, as the people of this city are generally friendlier than car salesmen. He or she might offer to show you the city, and you might find yourself arranging to meet at 2am, when the heat of the day has subsided to a comfortable 85 degrees. 
And then you might get an inkling of what La Movida was like. Or is like, depending on your interpretation: some people contend it’s still not over. The movida was an outbreak of joyful hedonism in the years that followed the death of Francisco Franco, the dictator whose oppressive, repressive rule defined Spanish life for nearly half a century (1939-1975). I imagine it as the Weimar Republic without the sense of impending doom.
Joyful hedonism notwithstanding, I got tired of Madrid. I spent the last weekend of July and the first weekend of August inBurgos and Basqueland, respectively, and took my summer vacation from my summer job in China. WIth a nod to the fact that this blog is supposed to be about living and working in Europe and similar disrespect to chronology, I’ll start with China.
From the forbidden city
The smog is not very noticeable, thanks to draconian measures taken by the government in the weeks leading up to the games. Beijing’s legendary traffic is likewise gone. The only vehicles on the road seem to be official Olympic transport (usually ominous black Audis with tinted windows that zoom by on the reserved lane on every highway), buses, or taxis. The taxi drivers generally have no idea where they are. Telling them a landmark like, say, Tiananmen square will not do; you must provide an intersection and optimally directions. You cannot buckle your seatbelt because there is a nice white cover with the Olympic logo on the seats. Public transport, by contrast, is a dream: the metro (which four years ago had two lines and now has 13) is spotless and equipped with TVs which endlessly broadcast whatever sport in which China is currently doing well. I have seen the synchronized diving enough times to have the entire routine memorized and might have memorized the shooting were it not so incredibly boring. And am I the only one to be disturbed by the fact that the average age of the Chinese gymnastics squad seems to be around 7?
Smog might be lessened, but the city does feel like it’s been engulfed in a cloud. The humidity is through the roof and visibility is ten New York blocks or so. Which makes the seemingly temperate temperatures miserably hot. If it weren’t tonic to my lungs after Madrid weather, I would be more bothered by the fact that my shirt is soaked through after a five minute walk.
I managed to get tickets to the quarterfinals and repecharges of the rowing events held on the 11th from a friend. While waiting to meet with her, I talked to one of the Olympic volunteers, who spoke excellent English. He wanted to convey how much China wanted to be respected and open to the rest of the world. I told him I’d had a wonderful time and everyone had been incredibly friendly (true) and it seemed like the Olympics had brought a lot of positive change. But I also heard that 300,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes to make space for the Olympic green with its iconic Bird’s nest and AquaCube. ‘I think they would tell you they were happy to move,’ he said. I was skeptical, and said as much in an email I sent to my rowing teammates back at Harvard. But one of them, an ABC with lots of family back in China, informed me my suspicions were baseless:
‘It is very clear to me that though there are likely
exceptions, most Chinese people feel that they have won the lottery
when they are informed that the government (or some business) wants to
take over their property. The reason is that they are often
compensated to ridiculous excess. For all of the Chinese government’s
problems (and we are all aware that there are many), it does refuse to
force the people from their land. Business people are often upset
because the Chinese citizens usually don’t actually have formal rights
to the properties (though many of them built their own houses and have
families who have lived in the same place for generations- it brings
up good questions about ownership). There have been many cases of
Chinese citizens refusing to sell their properties to the government
until they are offered an amount that is satisfactory to them. That
amount is generally unreasonably high. If the people who gave up
their properties in Beijing for the construction of the Olympic venues
were able to get good compensation, then it is definitely possible
that they weren’t terribly upset to move. And the fact that they can
tell their friends that the Cube and the Bird’s Nest was built on
their land will probably give them immense pride- an extra benefit.’
I narrowly missed seeing the US women’s 8, stroked by Caryn Davies, a Radcliffe alum, coast to first in their heat, which lets them bypass the repecharge and proceed straight to the semifinal. They went on to win the gold, but failed to set a new world record, which they have both of the last two years. This is by no means a measure of athletic incapacity: in rowing, weather can make or break even the strongest set of oarsmen. A strong tail wind, ie wind going in the same direction of the racing, will boost speed, but make the boat less stable, which means that a well-balanced, technically expert crew stands a good chance of making a record.
I did get to see Michelle Guerette, the US women’s single sculler and Radcliffe athlete, coast to an easy first in her quarterfinal and then saw her chief competition, the Belarusian Ekaterina Kaarsten, ‘beast’ her heat, as some might say. In the semi-finals on Wednesday, Michelle led her heat for nearly the first 1750 m (out of 2000) of the race but was passed by a Chinese sculler with one of the most fantastic sprints I have ever seen, no doubt aided by the roar of the Chinese in the stands by the finish line. Both first and second place progress to the final, however, and I had a hunch Michelle was saving her fireworks for the more important race. Kaarsten likewise finished second in her heat. Sure enough, Michelle went on to an impressive silver to Bulgaria’s Rumyana Neykova, the current world record holder, and Kaarsten gained a bronze to add to her golds from Atlanta and Sydney. Another highlight was seeing the Winklevoss twins, the Harvard grads who contracted Mark Zuckerberg to program a facebook-like program called ‘ConnectU’ only to have him procrastinate and then publish his own version. They might not be billionaires, but stood a chance at being medalists, thanks to a spectacular last 500 meters that saw them surge from 9 seconds behind the leader and fifth in their heat (out of six) to second in their heat. They ended up placing sixth in the final.
I spent the evening after racing with a rowing coach I met in the stands and a friendly group of British men who live in Beijing and coach football. The semi-native Beijingers took us to two of their usual haunts in the center of town. At the first I ran into a friend from the church choir I grew up singing in. I seem to have a knack for this kind of thing (see ‘Why not?’).
After Beijing, I went traveling with a fellow Harvard student and Chinese native. We spent the first two days in Xi’an, which was the capital of China for, oh, 13 dynasties or so. Highlights include the city walls – 59 feet thick at the base, and still nearly perfectly intact, though they were built in 600something. Evidently the Chinese make better walls than Europeans. Or maybe Europeans are just better at breaking them. We also visited a sacred Buddhist pagoda that was cracked in an earthquake in the fourteenth century, and then seismically restored to perfection by another earthquake in 17something. Feeling holy, we continued with a mosque built in 742 – that’s 110 years after the Hegira, which marked the founding of Islam. Those Muslims traveled quickly. Seeing the religious buildings highlighted an interesting difference between Western and Eastern cultures: while many of us Westerners seem so preoccupied with religion that we see the world coming to a catastrophic battle between Islam and Christianity (Clash of Civilizations, anyone?), the Chinese have managed to exist for a few millennia absent any significant religious conflict, at least until the Cultural revolution. From the peasants to the emperors, they have been happy to identify themselves as Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and seemingly any other thing that came along that encouraged them to better themselves. And often multiple religions at the same time. My aunt’s take:
‘I’m not well versed in Asian religions, but I do know that Confucius stressed the collective over the individual (ie, family is more important than the individual; community trumps family; and state trumps community ) so an individual’s relationship with a higher being has little importance in one’s daily life in China. Actually, what an indivdual thinks, period, has little to do with affairs of state. By contrast, the three monotheistic religions in the West (Christianity and Islam, and their ‘parent’ Judiasm) stress an individual’s ties to God, so religion perhaps has greater importance to the average person in the West than it does in the East. We take it personally and emotion plays a role, hence our fuse is shorter when fervently held beliefs collide.’
To be continued.
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